All of man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone. – Blaise Pascal
About 8 years ago I decided I wanted to re-wire my brain. I suspected that most of our thoughts, low moods and fears are the result of an untrained mind. The more we think a certain way or do a certain behavior, the more those connections in our brain get reinforced, and the thinking or behavior becomes a habit. I’d heard about the benefits of meditation and I was ready to give it a try.
I often write about breaking bad habits or creating healthy habits, usually referring to behavior, such as exercise. But what about thoughts and emotions? Thoughts and emotions are habitual as well. Yet stopping yourself from doing something seems more realistic than stopping yourself from thinking or feeling something.
That’s where sitting and doing nothing comes into the picture! Meditation is a powerful tool for changing your thoughts and emotions. So on my quest to train my mind, I started to practice daily meditation.
During the first few years of practicing daily, I was amazed at the benefits of meditation and I recall wondering how people who didn’t meditate even got through their day. It would be like not brushing your teeth in the morning, except instead of having a stale filmy-feeling in your mouth all day, your day would be infested by all sorts of thoughts and emotions, regardless of whether you found them pleasant or not.
After a few more years of meditating, I started to go on meditation auto-pilot. I was still sitting down and closing my eyes, but I wasn’t really getting into it. I was thinking about what I wanted to do that day, and wondering how long until my timer beeped so that I could get on with it. I didn’t really feel like there was any benefit to forcing myself to sit still when there was so much to be done. So I stopped.
At first it seemed liberating, as if I’d finally gotten rid of some pesky obligation that was consuming 20 minutes of my time every morning. Now I can just get out of bed and dive right into the day. Morning tea, here I come, no delays. Yipee! More time!
But as the weeks crept by, it turned out there were consequences to reclaiming that precious 20 minutes of my time. Many of the benefits of meditation had become such a normal part of my life that I didn’t realize how much the practice added to my well-being until I quit . . .
Meditation Reduces Anxiety
After going a few weeks without meditating I noticed that my thoughts began to race a bit and I felt unsettled. I had that “3rd coffee” feeling nearly all the time except that I rarely drink coffee. It was as if some radio was playing NPR all day long on low volume, slightly sped up. Just thoughts rambling on and on, one topic to the next, constantly! I’d try to close my eyes for a few moments, or take some deep breaths, but the anxious tension that went with the chatter in my head just lingered. I started to drink generous amounts of chamomile tea, but that just made me yawn more.
Meditation Improves Sleep
At the risk of stating the obvious, sleep is better when you aren’t anxious. After a week of living with my unsettled chatter-box mind, my thoughts decided to ignore all circadian clues about night/day and just yap around the clock. Who needs sleep? Let’s just think all night! It was horrible. I’m probably a bit of a wimp when it comes to insomnia, because I am normally the kind of person who falls asleep within 30 seconds of my head coming into contact with something that resembles a pillow. But suddenly I could not fall asleep for hours and hours, for several days in a row! I felt like I had been injected with some horrible illicit substance that wouldn’t let me sleep no matter how tired I felt.
I tried running during the day to burn off some of the anxious energy. But I started to suspect that the problem was the lack of silence in my life, the kind of silence that you experience in fleeting moments during meditation, yet a silence powerful enough that even tiny moments of it leave you feeling calm and grounded for hours afterwards.
So what are the benefits of meditation?
Meditation Helps Us Live a Balanced Life
When my thoughts were in control of me instead of vice-versa, my days got very busy as I ran around fulfilling their agenda. Perhaps if I took care of everything my head was thinking about, then it would finally shut-up for a moment so I could relax! I’m into a whole lot of things, and the key to my happiness is to maintain a healthy work/life balance. My brain without meditation didn’t seem to care that there was more to life than work-related phone calls and emails. Normally I know when it’s time to leave work behind and tend to my garden, but suddenly there didn’t seem to be any spare time for planting vegetables, yoga, cooking, reading, writing, or just going on a walk with my husband and our little girl. I don’t think my day job got any busier—it just consumed me in a way that doesn’t happen when I’m feeling grounded and aware of what is important to me in life.
Meditation Helps Us Make Good Decisions
Our life and our habits are the result of choices we make, and I noticed I started making more bad decisions during those weeks without meditation. I ate food that wasn’t good for me and I neglected to do things that are good for me, like exercise. I was far more susceptible to acting on impulse instead of my higher values and aspirations. I felt out of touch with the goals I’d set for myself, like I was just getting pulled along by the tide. Meditation brews focus and clarity to help us live the life we ultimately want for ourselves. Without my morning practice, my mind became a lost wandering sheep whose shepherd had abandoned the pasture.
Meditation Help Us Live in the Present Moment
My wandering mind also refused to stay in the present moment. I couldn’t stop thinking about work while gardening, or thinking about gardening while working. I thought about cleaning while cooking, and cooking while cleaning. As a result, I didn’t fully experience any of these activities, instead I just went through the motions while paying more attention to the images in my mind. By splitting my attention between my physical reality and my thoughts and imagination, I diminished the quality of my experience.
The inability to stay in the present moment due to constant thinking about the future or past is a normal state of being for most people. But life is happening here, now, in this very moment. The past is gone, and the future does not exist yet. If we aren’t aware of the present moment because our thoughts are elsewhere, we are living an imaginary life in our head, and we’re not experiencing reality.
The beauty of meditation is that it is an exercise in staying present. It gives us a chance to practice being satisfied with the present moment without giving in to the mind’s habit of rushing off to the past or future. In meditation we are given the simplest moment – just sitting and paying attention to our breath. There is no where to go, nothing to do, nothing that needs to be thought about or figured out. Just sit and breathe. That is all. So why is it so difficult?
The difficulty comes from our habitual tendency to avoid the present moment. The untrained mind is so used to rushing forward and back, it is as if we would cease to exist if we just allowed our attention to settle on the present reality. Meditation is a wonderful tool for training our minds to stay where we are.
What Happened When I Started Meditating Again?
How do I know that all these symptoms were the result of quitting my meditation practice? Because the moment I returned to my cushion, the storm passed and the calm returned. I started to giggle at things that would have annoyed me a few days ago (I have a dark sense of humor). Everything I did got a little easier. There was more flow in my day and less resistance to my responsibilities. When we are in tune with what is meaningful to us in life, all the other stuff is not that important. We can do our day job without it haunting us at night. We can avoid stress, anger, depression and anxiety if we know how to just let a thought go instead of allowing it to fester.
Many people are reluctant to even try meditation, never mind committing to a daily practice. It is often seen as an activity reserved for exotic monks who have devoted themselves to spiritual practice or new-agey types seeking a way to feel connected to something. In our fast-paced world, we may feel like we are too busy to set aside time for such a seemingly unproductive activity – the act of sitting and doing nothing . . .yet many of us find plenty of time for watching TV.
Of those that do try meditation, many won’t stick with it. The untrained mind is easily bored or restless, eager to rush off to the next activity we have planned.
Meditation is a way to train your mind to be your servant, not your master.
Just like exercise, the benefits of meditating are not clear until you practice it regularly over a span of time. Running is the hardest when you are out of shape, and it gets easier and more enjoyable the more you do it. You also don’t get a fabulous looking body just because you ran a few times. The rewards come with sustained practice.